The parable of the Importunate Widow, as it is often called, seems pretty straightforward. Look, if even a coldhearted judge who doesn’t give a hoot about what God or anybody else thinks will eventually hear out a pesky widow’s complaint and grant her justice, how much more will God – who is all goodness – respond to the cry of his people. That seems clear enough; til it doesn’t. Like, what am I supposed to do when God seems to be silent, when someone I love still suffers or some awful thing in the world keeps being awful? Am I not pesky and importunate enough?
The word importunate, by the way is an adjective that means “troublesomely urgent or persistent”. The verb, ‘importune’, means “to beset with insistent requests”. Aside from those scary times when serious illness or danger comes upon us or upon someone dear to us, when is our prayer troublesomely urgent or persistent? And even if it is, do I really think God hears us when we cry to him? Prayer seems to be just as likely to be met with silence as with a word we can see and hear from God. And besides, I don’t want to be a pest. Who am I to pester God?
Like all of Jesus’ parables, at first we think we get it, that it makes a straightforward and clear point. And then suddenly we discover we are in a thicket of questions that don’t have easy answers.
Fortunately with this parable, Luke gives us a compass to help us find our way through the thicket. He says that this is a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. This parable is about prayer and not losing your heart.
By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation
The air finally got a little crisper this week and for the first time it felt like it might actually be fall. The cooler weather made it more palatable as I stood at the Lowe’s looking at the pumpkins and mums and large inflatable ghosts with Christmas wreaths and flashing trees just behind them.
We do this crazy mash of seasons from the start of October onward. It’s such a strange slide from the ghosts and goblins and gluttony of mini candy bars of Halloween, into this season where we are supposed to be grateful in the month of November while in actuality we are lavishly and frantically planning and spending away in preparation for Christmas, the commercial one, not the one we are truly called to celebrate.
In today’s reading, Jesus’ response to the Samaritan’s gratitude gave me pause. A chance to stop and think before the onslaught of the merged seasons begins to truly work on what being grateful looks like.
Gratitude is a commonly used word. We make lists of things we are grateful for and around this time of year we make our children do the same often making them write these “blessings” on construction paper tail feathers for their Thanksgiving turkey artwork. The word gratitude bears many different levels of meaning in our discourse. Some of it trite and cheap, some of it maudlin and dripping with something less than wholehearted sincerity, and some of it deep down to the bone.
Some years ago, I read a piece of research on the make-up of the Episcopal Church that indicated that probably only about one if five people in the pew on a Sunday morning in an Episcopal Church is what is called a ‘cradle Episcopalian’. A ‘cradle Episcopalian’ is someone who was born and raised in the Episcopal Church. I was surprised by that but over the years I’ve seen that that’s probably true. So, if you are here this morning, and you were raised in a Baptist household, or Roman Catholic, or Methodist, or even no church at all, and you think everyone here but you knows what’s going on with the Prayer Book and when to sit and when to stand or kneel, or wonder why some people cross themselves and others don’t, well, you are probably in the majority. Take heart, you are not alone!
I’m a ‘cradle Episcopalian’, for what it’s worth. I was baptized in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Tacoma, Washington when I was about three weeks old. My mother was raised a Methodist and my father an Episcopalian, and they raised us four children going to the local Episcopal Church pretty much every Sunday. Being a ‘cradle Episcopalian’ doesn’t give me a leg up on anyone. It only means that I have a sense of what can be beautiful about our tradition and what can be a ‘stumbling block’ to faith.
If you were not raised in the Episcopal Church, one of the things you should know about our peculiar expression of the Christian faith is that we are great lovers of tradition, even if we may not know exactly what we mean by that. You can hear this when older Episcopalians talk about how much better the 1940 Hymnal was than the current one – although there were just as many unsingable hymns in that collection as there are in the current edition as far as I can tell. Or we talk about the 1928 Prayer Book and how it was much superior to the current Prayer Book. What we often mean by that is that we love the language of the old Prayer Book, so you’ll hear us talk about things like Rite I and Rite II.
The traditions of expressing Christian faith that are handed from one generation to the next can be a life-giving means to show us a path to follow and unite us with the living faith of those who have gone before us. Of course, it can also be an empty vessel. There have been great battles in our tradition over what clergy should wear on Sunday morning or whether lighted candles should be on the altar. I’m sure there was something important at the time about such arguments, but they belong to a different day and a different people. I couldn’t be less interested at this point frankly.
Have you ever been at a party or large family gathering and noticed how one person in particular seemed to be attracting a lot of attention? If I had to guess, I would say that that person was someone who could tell a good story. In my family, that person happens to be my brother-in-law. He comes into a crowd, finds a chair somewhere in the corner, sits down and waits for people to notice him – which, given his large size, isn’t hard to do. He gets food and drinks brought to him as he carries forth with story after story. He thrives on all the attention he gets.
Jesus was a good storyteller, too – an amazing storyteller. He also could attract a crowd of listeners – but it wasn’t because he wanted or needed the attention. It happened naturally as his reputation for teaching, for healing and for controversy spread. People were naturally curious about him.
As you know by now, so many of his stories were parables; and many of them were told in the company of Pharisees, who prided themselves on being keepers of Jewish rituals, tradition and liturgy. Jesus would draw his listeners in with an ordinary beginning to his story such as: “There was a man who had two sons…” (Luke 15:11) which is the beginning of the parable of the Prodigal Son; or “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho..” (Luke 10:25) which is the beginning of the Good Samaritan; and “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple…” (Luke 16:19) which begins today’s parable.
A discovery was made when our bell tower was cleaned and painted a few weeks ago. We learned that way up there among our beautiful church bells, behind one of the walls, is a thriving colony of honeybees. According to the ‘bee man’ who came to check it out, something like 40,000 honey bees have made a home there flying in and out and among the bells that are inscribed ‘praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below’. Creatures like honeybees. As you might know, honeybees have been going through a terrible time in the past 15 years or so. For slightly mysterious reasons, the total population of honeybees has taken a terrible beating. And that’s bad. Because honeybees are a big part of why we have food on our tables. They pollinate the plants that produce so much of what is delicious and keeps us and all kinds of other living things alive. No one asked them to do that. They just do it as a gift of God’s creation. Thank you, honeybees.
The ‘bee man’ also let us know that behind that wall there is probably an extensive structure of honeycomb filled with beautiful honey. That’s something else the honeybee gives us without being asked – this perfect, perfect thing called honey. Nobody asked them to – they just do it and we receive it; it’s a gift of pure grace.
Well, since this discovery, thoughts of the prophet Ezekiel float in and out of my mind whenever I see the bell tower or her the bells chiming. When the Lord God first began to speak into the depths of Ezekiel, here is what the prophet heard: “ ‘Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it’. Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey”. God’s Word, like honey in his mouth; pure grace.